*This post of mine is also published on The New York Times/ Women in the World.*
If you want to hear Yasmine Al-Massri — who plays identical twin Muslim FBI agents Nimah and Raina Amin in hit series Quantico — reduced to laughter, ask her about the dialect coach she shared with the show’s Indian-born megastar, Priyanka Chopra, as they both learned to master the American accent.
“My case is different than Priyanka’s case because she went to school here in the U.S., and then she moved back to India,” Al-Massri explains to Women in the World. “In my case, there is a triple problem. I have an Arab, French and British accent, and I have British in my American. So in my mouth you have to clean out the French accent and clean out the British accent, so I can relate to the twins with an Arab-American accent.”
The two actresses bonded over their international backgrounds, she said (amusing one another as they experimented with their characters’ accents) and Al-Massri’s respect and gratitude for her fellow cast member is clear. “I think if Priyanka Chopra wasn’t the star of the show, the show wouldn’t have happened. Priyanka Chopra gave life to us. We exist today thanks to her. She gave Quantico a chance. She gave it a platform and it was our job to prove that we were worthy of this platform and actor.”
Although the cast and crew moved to Canada to shoot the show, home for Al-Massri is in Los Angeles, California with her husband and their young son. But her journey to Hollywood began in Beirut, where she was born into a family of refugees during the country’s civil war. Al-Massri eventually moved to Paris for higher studies and graduated from France’s Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, beginning her career in the arts — initially as a dancer before landing a role in 2007’s critically acclaimed film, Caramel, the Lebanese LGBT-themed film that was the first Arab movie to go to Cannes.
“It was ahead of its time for the Arab world,” Al-Massri said about her award-winning role in the movie. “For my mother, it was shocking to show a woman being waxed on TV … When I did Caramel, I was living in Paris. [It] was co-produced by the French, so to screen it in Beirut and then screen it in Paris; to talk to the people and the press about it, it was very funny because for the French we weren’t avant-garde enough… [But] we cannot keep having taboo. We are going to have to talk about those issues if we want to be better people.”
Al-Massri said that the film made a lot of young Arab women want to become directors and tell their own stories, and that it was an amazing gift for women all over the world, not just in the Middle East.
“The fact that we are in women’s territory in the film, and the fact that a woman is telling the story for from a woman’s perspective, that is what’s the groundbreaking thing about it,” Al-Massri said. “To have a woman say it, the perspective — to have a woman say what she thinks when she is going through menopause, losing her virginity, her relationships with other women. I think this is what’s groundbreaking because I don’t think we have enough women yet in the film industry telling their stories. I think it’s happening now, I think in the future we will have more and more women telling their stories. But until now, men were telling our stories. It was a different perspective.”
An awareness of the importance of presenting a variety of perspectives is especially evident in Al-Massri’s characters on Quantico, where she plays Muslim sisters who in many ways are complete opposites, despite their closeness.
“That’s the great thing for me — the fact that I’m playing a hijabi girl, Raina, a believer, who loves wearing her veil, who is fighting, trying to prove herself amongst the men at Quantico,” Al-Massri tells me. “At the same time, to play her twin sister, Nimah, who is not veiled, not very religious in her lifestyle, but who is also from this culture and tradition. In a recent episode, she stands up for Raina when she doesn’t have security clearance just because there was a picture of her with an imam inside a mosque where people were gathered to express their unhappiness with the war in Iraq. “You’re not trusting the Muslims and you are judging them because you think Muslims cannot work for the United States of America — that they cannot be loyal to the United States, but you’re wrong.”
And Nimah stands up in front of everyone and says, “The question is not ‘Is my sister ready for you?’ It’s ‘Are you ready for her?’ I love that. I love that because in one sense, this is the Arab world I grew up in, the kind of family I grew up in. My cousins are veiled, but I am not.”
Before the show, Al-Massri said she had never seen a veiled woman portrayed on U.S. television in an empowered role, an FBI agent who is a smart, driven, sexy and competitive character like the twins on Quantico. However, Al-Massri said this sad reality is understandable given the overall lack of understanding between the Arab world and America.
“It has been five years now that I have been living in the U.S., and I just became American a few months ago. And I ask myself a lot of questions about what does it mean for me to become American, you know? And I keep wondering ‘Why is the relationship between the U.S. and the Arab world the way it is today?’ and I am learning slowly a lot of things, but one of the great things that I am discovering is that really Americans don’t know how rich the Arab world is. Americans don’t know the difference between Arab countries. They don’t know the difference between Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia. Every country is so different. They don’t know the difference between Persian and Arab culture. They don’t know the difference between an Arab Muslim and an Indonesian Muslim or a Malaysian Muslim person even.
“I don’t want to sound like I am blaming Americans for not knowing, because many Arabs also fall into this category. You cannot blame the Other for not knowing you. It’s your responsibility to tell the Other who you are, where you come from, what you stand for as a human being.”
Al-Massri goes onto say that she is hopeful about the future of Arab-Americans in the U.S., but that the next generation are still young and have yet to fully cultivate their identities in American society.
“I do think there is an amazing young generation of Arabs born in America, and I say Arab because it’s very important for me to choose the right words because people expect me to be an ambassador for Islam, and I cannot pretend to be that ambassador,” Al-Massri tells me. “There are other people who specialize in religion who should talk about religion. I’m an artist and I’m an actor, and what I’m trying to do in Quantico is defend the humanity of my character, beyond where they come from.”
Aside from maneuvering all the stereotypes that come with playing a Muslim woman on American TV, Al-Massri had to deal with the daily technical barriers of playing two characters, which she describes as extremely difficult, and the result of a lot of teamwork.
“It’s very challenging,” Al-Massri said, while inviting Women in the World to observe on the show’s set. “The obstacles are both technical and artistic. It is technically fascinating. It’s a process that forces you to grown up as an artist because you cannot just make your own decisions. I cannot just come to set just with my performance decisions, and that’s it. I am obliged to share with every technician on set what I am going to do. There are many things we could not do physically, and I am a dancer and I have always used my body to be my to be my motor of energy as an actress. It was very frustrating to lose that body freedom and to be very aware of every movement — as someone who loves to improvise, someone who loves to experiment. I rarely give the same performance twice. I don’t like that. I was challenged in this sense because the kind of actor that I am, I like to be experimental. All of a sudden, I had to learn to collaborate and mature as an actor.”
Despite the success of the show, and the impressive diversity of the cast, critics of Quantico lament the fact that the twins are played within the context of terrorism, with some even saying the show actually reinforces negative images of Arabs and Muslims. Al-Massri understands where there are coming from.
“I totally agree with them, actually,” Al- Massri admits. “Yes, American TV and even the film industry need to see a hijabi women that is maybe a computer nerd, maybe a hijabi woman who is a clown at a circus, maybe a hijabi woman who is just going to Harvard, a researcher. I totally agree with them. This is needed. But I do believe Quantico is an amazing opportunity to show the humanity of these characters. Because it’s all about them.
That’s the challenge for any actor onscreen and their character, to make them human and make them loved, make people watch you. Make people love them. That’s an actor’s nightmare, not to be loved by people and embraced by the people. Nimah and Raina get so much love that I did not even expect. I am getting more love than what I expected. I cannot tell you the young kids that send emails to me from Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Yemen, Russia — it’s amazing. People love this character. And that for me, that’s succeeding, but definitely the critics are right. We do need to look at those people outside the world of FBI, outside the world of terror. We need to make them human. They need to be dentists, they need to be teachers, they need to be like everyone else. I hope it will happen in the future. I think it will happen in the future. I choose to be positive.”
There is no denying that Al-Massri’s positive outlook has been instrumental in her career. When I ask her if she considers herself a feminist, she takes me right back to her roots. “You’re talking to a woman who was born in Lebanon during the Civil War,” Al-Massri said. “And I was born in a family of refugees. And I have seven uncles. Like, eight men were responsible of me, and I have three younger brothers who thought they were also responsible for me. So I had like ten men deciding if Yasmine should go out or not … I say no to everyone who tries to tell me who I am and who I am going to be. Does that make me a feminist?”
*This post of mine is also published on The New York Times/ Women in the World.*